Danielle on the fence

7 June 2023

Column from The Mercury, June 2, 2023

I’ve been watching the Great Stadium Debate from one of the cheap seats … on the fence (oh, look, there’s Rebecca White, just a few posts down the way!). In one direction, I see those in favour of a new major events stadium in Hobart; in another I see those who think such a development a reckless waste of money.

The arguments in favour are relatively simple. If a Tasmanian team is to become part of the AFL, we need a new stadium in Hobart. Not just because the AFL stitched up our Premier with a no-stadium-no-team deal, but because an upgrade to Blundstone Arena can’t solve that venue’s fundamental problem: its location.

Whenever Blundstone Arena hosts a North Melbourne game, a BBL clash or an international cricket match, a feat of logistics is necessary. Several Bellerive streets are shut off, inconveniencing residents, and it takes a significant police presence and numerous traffic-flow modifications just to get spectators and their cars safely out of the suburb. Of course, this means that we don’t only need a new stadium. We also need the public transport infrastructure to match.

Given our city’s mercurial weather, a roofed venue makes sense. Imagine being able to watch sport without having to huddle inside one of those useless Gladwrap-weight ponchos when it starts to bucket down in a Hobart winter (autumn/spring/summer).

A Tasmanian AFL team could be a source of pride and enjoyment for many. Our players-of-the-future have the capacity to bring inspiration to their communities, and it would mean a great deal to them, and their families, to have the possibility of fulfilling their potential here at home.

It's important to remember that AFL isn’t only something enjoyed by those being schmoozed in the corporate boxes. For a lot of people, watching their team play is a highlight of their wintertime weeks – an event that brings them feelings of camaraderie, belonging and joy.

If a stadium development were to co-exist with the Truth and Reconciliation Park promised by our State Government, we could see a genuine broadening of understanding of this island’s Indigenous past, present and future.

The arguments against are a little more difficult to summarise because they come from a range of viewpoints. Stay with me.

We have a healthcare system in freefall, a mental health disaster about to escalate when St Helens Hospital closes its doors, a housing emergency, worsening traffic congestion in and around the city and a cost-of-living crisis.

In that context, spending somewhere in the ballpark of a billion dollars on something as inessential as a footy stadium feels wrong to many people. Probably most of us. Even if a billion dollars is the equivalent of only a few months of the health budget, it’s still a long way from an insignificant sum.

Those in favour of a team/stadium combination respond to this by saying that the flow-on benefits – the visitors attracted, the money spent in restaurants, hotels and the shops of Salamanca Place – will deliver the kind of prosperity that can be translated into better healthcare, more housing, better public transport and a higher standard of living for Tasmanians.

However, what the government and the pro-stadium folk present as a fait accompli is actually a gamble. They hope and perhaps even believe that the combination of a Tasmanian team and stadium would drive a significant tourism boom.

‘We need to think big!’ they say. ‘Stop clinging to the cultural cringe!’ And maybe they have a point. After all, David Walch proved to us, with MONA and its attendant festivals, that if you build something impressive, people will come (yes, even to Tasmania!).

But the truth is nobody really knows if the gamble would pay off. Could Tasmania field a competitive team? Do we have the population to support it? If our club turned out to be a bit Gold Coast-ish, would tourists really flood to watch its games?

Here’s where the anti-stadium lobby splits. A billion dollars is a lot to spend on a hopeful gamble, and many are uninterested in taking the punt – some because they’re convinced the odds of success are so low (‘I’d quite like a team and stadium, but I don’t believe this venture’s going to work’), some because they think the benefits would in any case fail to reach those in need (‘yeah, it could work, but the AFL and TV networks will pocket the cash and the needy will still be in need’), and others because they see no value in the prize (‘footy just isn’t a priority’).

If we end up with no stadium, and hence no footy team, it will be sad for our talented young sportspeople; their dreams will still have to unfurl on the big island. It will be sad, too, for those people who’ve hoped for years to have a Tassie Devils team to support.

But if we end up with a half-empty stadium, a mega-ton of debt from stadium-build overruns, and an underperforming Tassie Devils team costing many millions of dollars a year to feed, this will exacerbate our existing financial problems.

We’re hearing that the money for the stadium will come from the infrastructure budget and not health or housing, but we all understand what happens when there’s a finite amount of money and one overspends on non-essentials – cuts must be made elsewhere.

We’re hearing that if we don’t grab the Feds’ $240 million contribution, it will be gone forever. But being granted or loaned a sum of money on the proviso that we spend a great deal more is not necessarily a good deal.

And it’s not just the almost-certain-to-blowout cost of building of the stadium that needs to be considered; there’s also the future costs of maintaining the very expensive pet that is a competitive and adequately resourced AFL footy team.

I suspect a greater number of people would be in favour of the stadium if they were more optimistic about the success of the overall Tassie AFL venture, and if they had a greater degree of trust in the State Government. Unfortunately, successive Tasmanian governments have taught us to be very suspicious about where the benefits flow when our assets (trees, rivers, mountains, talent, waterfront land) go on sale.

Would a stadium and a Tassie team turn out to be a generator of well-distributed economic bounty? Or a cash-cow for certain vested interests? Or a perilously expensive white elephant? Or something else altogether? You can see a lot from here on the fence (hi, Rebecca!), but not the contents of that crystal ball.